Inside East Germany: Art and Artifacts from the GDR

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Menu, Milk Bar Penguin, Leipzig, 1960s
Menu, Milk Bar Penguin, Leipzig, 1960sCourtesy of The Wende Museum/TASCHEN

A fascinating insight into East Germany's rarely documented past

Anyone who's ever watched a film set in the days of the German Democratic Republic – be it tense thriller The Lives of Others or the moving and hilarious Goodbye, Lenin! – will have their own, most likely Orwellian view of how East Germany operated in its 40-year period under communist reign. But attempt to delve beneath the surface of dramatisation or historical essay; attempt to explore in depth the objects that defined everyday life for East Germans during this period, and you may well hit a wall (no pun intended).

Indeed, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there has been much contention about the handling of such objects. Many were destroyed or hidden in the immediate aftermath – artworks were stored away in depots and largely forgotten about; cars were stockpiled in junk yards – the general consensus being that these remnants of a failed regime were best eradicated from Germany's already deeply complicated past. But that all changed in 2002, when The Wende Museum – the first institution dedicated solely to the archiving of GDR art and artifacts – opened in Los Angeles, a suitably neutral space from which to reassess Cold War objects. And now, many of the most fascinating items from their collection are perusable thanks to a brilliant new tome from Taschen, which explores all elements of the era from fashion photography to advertisements to secret police surveillance equipment. Here, we present some of our favourite pieces, alongside extracts of the book's text.

Food and Drink
"The early years of the GDR had hardly been a time of gastronomic distinction or experimentation... but over time, a rising middle class became increasingly motorized and GDR citizens began to probe the four corners of their small republic – and beyond – in search of stylish dining."

"Both out of individual desperation and – more often than not – out of social cohesiveness encouraged by the collective ideal, the 'new socialist man' (and woman) drank heavily at home, at public events, and at the workplace, to the point of pervasive alcoholism in East Germany. Though officially discouraged, alcohol consumption constituted a significant source of revenue for the GDR economy... The many consumer shortages in the GDR never seemed to affect the alcohol industry."

Design and Fashion

“For 40 years, the GDR laboured to develop a formal and independent design aesthetic, a task made particularly challenging given the overwhelming influence of the prior period’s stylistic traditions. The immediate postwar period saw various former Bauhaus members accept positions in the GDR to help create a socialist design culture. However, many left the country as a result of political protests in the 1950s. Modernism subsequently became the dominant formal language not only in architecture but also in designs for products, crafts and fashion.”

“With cities like Dresden, Leipzig and Weimar under the GDR flag, the smaller, eastern half of divided Germany held the stronger hand when it came to rebuilding German cultural life after 1945 and the responding to the urge of writers, composers and academics exiled by the Nazis to return to German soil, even if under communist leadership. Theatre, films and concert life all benefited from the repatriation program, from generous subsidies, and from the existence of an appreciative public.”

Political life
“To ensure that the Stasi had access to examples of the latest technologies from the West, East German agents collected equipment from both Soviet allies and Western powers to study, use and in some cases, reverse engineer.” 

Beyond the Wall: Art and Artifacts from the GDR, edited by Justinian Jampol and published by Taschen, is out now.

Words by Daisy Woodward